Time management for students: 10 strategies and tips to maximize your time and build your focus

I can still remember the dread that would slowly set in after the first few weeks of a new school year. After the shiny excitement of new classes and new friends wore off, I was left with just one lingering thought: How am I actually going to do all this?

Unfortunately, a quick search for “time management tips for students” doesn’t bring up much of value. Use a schedule. Prioritize. Get enough sleep. These high-level tips only go so far. To really optimize your time and get ahead on school projects, you need to be more tactical. 

Time management for students (and everyone else) is about being purposeful with your day. It’s about taking control of what time you do have and optimizing it for productivity, focus, and above all, balance.

To help you out, we’ve collected the best advice on how to stay focused, beat procrastination, and manage your time from student RescueTime users in both undergraduate and graduate programs.

How to master time management for students:

  1. Use a daily schedule template to plan your day
  2. Understand how you’re currently spending your time (and where you’re losing it)
  3. Set proper goals to measure your progress
  4. Break large projects into small, actionable tasks
  5. Beware the Planning Fallacy (i.e. you probably need more time than you think)
  6. Follow your body’s natural energy highs and lows
  7. Take breaks at the right time
  8. Beat procrastination with the 5-minute rule
  9. Optimize your study time for Flow
  10. Build better habits and routines for long-term success

1. Use a daily schedule template to plan your day

Classes, seminars, and workshops might take up the majority of your day, but how you schedule your own time can make all the difference. 

While much of the advice about time management for students centers around creating a to-do list, it’s more important to master your schedule.

A to-do list only tells you what you’d like to do. A schedule tells you when you’re going to do it. @RescueTime Click To Tweet

Having a daily schedule template in place puts you in control. It will help you stay organized, focused on what matters most, and even help you overcome procrastination.  

The method of choice for many of the world’s most successful people—from Bill Gates to Elon Musk—is called time blocking. Simply put, time blocking is when you create a template for how you want to spend every minute of your day. 

This might sound overwhelming. However, it’s more of a skeleton rather than a strict set of rules. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Step 1: Create “bookends” for each day

To maximize your time, you need to be purposeful with how you start and end each day. Think about your morning and evening routines and then “block” in time for your most important tasks. For example, academic Kevin Taylor has a recurring 2-hour writing block each morning:

Step 2: Set aside time for your most important projects

Next, you’ll want to set aside time for your most important projects. This might mean research or writing or something completely different. The key here is that you’re purposeful about what you’re doing and when it’s going to happen. 

If you need help staying focused during this time you can now use RescueTime for Google Calendar to automatically trigger FocusTime sessions.

Simply use #focustime in the Google Calendar event name or description and we’ll automatically block all distracting websites (like social media, YouTube, news, and entertainment) for the duration of that event.

Step 3: Schedule in breaks, social time, and catch-up tasks 

Lastly, for a schedule to work, it has to be realistic. This means including time for breaks, food, exercise, social time, calling family and friends, and all the other “non-school” tasks that keep you happy and motivated.  

RescueTime gives you the tools you need to take back control of your time and rebuild your focus. Try it for free for 14 days.

2. Understand how you’re currently spending your time (and where you’re losing it)

Your schedule will give you an ideal version of your day, but in order to build better time management habits, you need to know how you’re actually spending your time.

Without a clear understanding of where your time goes each day, it’s impossible to build better time management strategies and stay focused. 

When it comes to tracking your time, you have two options:

  1. Spend a day or two writing a “time log”—manually tracking how you spend each moment of your day
  2. Use a free tool like RescueTime to automatically log your time

The same way a dieter needs to track their food intake to see where they’re sabotaging themselves, you need to know where you’re losing time to the wrong things.

For example, after installing RescueTime, you’ll get a clear breakdown of what apps, websites, and tools you use each day organized by category and productivity score. 

Your RescueTime dashboard automatically tracks and organizes the tools, apps, and websites you use every day.

As Ph.D. Student, Jonathan K. told us:

“RescueTime has made me 100% more aware of my productivity. It’s the best tool I’ve found for recording how you’re spending your time, digging into the details, and building better habits.”

3. Set proper goals to measure your progress

Goals are a great way to get motivated to do school work. Unfortunately, the way most of us set goals is completely wrong. The problem is that goals are just the end result. They don’t tell you anything about how you’re going to achieve them.

Rather than starting at the goal and working backward, focus on what needs to get done to hit and surpass that goal. In other words:

What can you do every day that will help you achieve your ultimate goal? 

This means focusing on consistent progress and building better habits. 

For example, let’s say you need to write a 4,000-word essay by the end of the month. Rather than being overwhelmed by the end goal, set a daily goal of writing just 500 words. If you can keep this up, you’ll hit your goal in just over a week (giving you plenty of time to edit and rework it). 

Writing goal
RescueTime keeps track of your most important goals and lets you know when you’ve hit them.

Even better, every day you see progress will help motivate you to do more. When Harvard’s Teresa Amabile looked into all the things that can boost our mood and motivation, “the single most important is making progress on meaningful work.”

4. Break large projects into small, actionable tasks

Part of proper goal-setting is being able to break large goals down into daily tasks. Not only does this keep you focused, but it can even help you stop procrastinating. 

It’s easy to procrastinate when a project feels like such a huge task. However, taking that first step is usually all you need to build momentum. As time management expert Laura Vanderkam told us

“The best thing you can do is to start very small. Decide what the smallest, most doable next step is on a big project and then list out all the next steps along with a deadline for each.”

For example, if you need to write an in-depth essay, you might break that project down into a few steps:

  1. Go to the library and find books on the topic
  2. Skim their table of contents
  3. Write out your paragraph headings
  4. Do an abstract of the first paragraph
  5. And so on…

Each of these steps is doable and can be scheduled into your daily schedule rather than feeling overwhelmed by the end goal.  

Here’s another example using RescueTime. Rather than set a massive goal of writing your thesis, you can set daily goals to spend 3 hours writing. This way, you’re focusing on making progress, not just the end result.  

5. Beware the Planning Fallacy (i.e. you probably need more time than you think)

When you start to schedule your tasks throughout your day, it’s easy to be overly optimistic about how much you can get done. Psychologists even have a name for this: The Planning Fallacy.

This is harmful to your time management for a number of reasons:

  1. You’re more likely to get stressed when tasks take longer than you anticipated
  2. Your schedule gets pushed back to compensate for the extra time you spend 
  3. You might take on too much work thinking you have more time than you do

To counteract the Planning Fallacy, work a buffer into your schedule based on your familiarity with the task. If it’s something you’ve done before, give yourself 1-1.5X the time you think it will take. If it’s something new, give yourself double the time or more. 

6. Follow your body’s natural energy highs and lows

We all have moments in the day where we’re more alert and energetic. And if you want to maximize the time you do have each day, you can’t fight against your body’s natural state. 

Researchers call this our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain that cycles between alertness and sleepiness.

Every person’s rhythm is slightly different, but the majority follow a similar pattern.

So what does this mean for time management for students? 

Simply put, you should do your most important work when you have the most energy. This means scheduling writing or more intense projects during energy highs, and scheduling reading or more passive activities when you’re more naturally low. 

7. Take breaks at the right time

One of the best ways to maintain your productivity over time is to take more breaks. But when is the right time to take a break? 

According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our minds naturally crave breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work. Even if you don’t keep a timer going, your body will tell you when you need a break by becoming hungry, sleepy, fidgeting, or losing focus. 

When you start to feel this way, it’s time to take a break. There are a few things you can do to make the most of your downtime:

  • Disconnect from whatever you were just working on. Step away from your desk or work environment and try to shift your brain away from your task at hand. 
  • Get outdoors if you can. Fresh air and natural light are energy and productivity boosters. 
  • Give your eyes a break. Counteract screen or reading time by using a simple exercise called 20-20-20. Every 20 minutes or so, stare at something at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. 
  • Refuel with the right food. Foods that are high in protein will give you a much longer boost of energy than caffeine or carbs. 

8. Beat procrastination with the 5-minute rule

Procrastination is pretty much inevitable. But you don’t have to let it take over your day. Instead, all it usually takes is a bit of determination to get into the flow of a task. As Ph. D student, Jonathan K. told us: 

“I know if I can start working on a task and get invested in it then it’s easy for me to spend 3 or 4 productive hours on it.”

To get over that initial hump of feeling unmotivated, try a couple of these strategies: 

  • Follow the 5-minute rule. Popularized by Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, this “rule” means telling yourself you’re only going to do 5-minutes of work on a project. In most cases, that’s enough to get you motivated. 
  • Block distractions when you first start working. Procrastination is easier when you have social media and entertainment at your fingertips. With a tool like RescueTime, you can block distracting websites when you first start working or at specific times of the day so you’re not tempted to procrastinate. 

9. Optimize your study time for Flow (i.e. only do one thing at a time)

It’s tempting to think you can multitask when your schedule is crammed. But the more you try to do at once, the longer everything takes. Instead, studies have found that deeply focusing on a single task at a time can be up to 500% more productive

However, “single-tasking” like this isn’t easy. If you have a hard time focusing on just one thing, try these steps: 

  1. Remove distractions (including your phone)
  2. Start small and set a timer (even 5-minutes of distraction-free work time is beneficial)
  3. Take a break in between each session

10. Build better habits and routines for long-term success

We are what we repeatedly do. The best time management strategy for students and everyone else is simply to develop habits and routines that promote the kind of actions you want to do more of. 

For example, following a morning routine that focuses on getting an early win and setting yourself up for a productive day. Or, make sure your evening routine sets you up for a successful next day by setting your schedule and goals the night before. 

Or, as Ph. D student Gary W explains, keeping on top of how you’re spending your time:

“I didn’t realize how much time I was throwing down the drain just from small things like watching videos on YouTube. RescueTime gives me accuracy when it comes to knowing how I spend my time. I get a much more detailed picture of what I’m doing so I can make the changes I need to my schedule and habits.”

Thousands of students use RescueTime to help take control of their time

Time management for students is especially hard. With the pressure of school, projects, homework, and your social life, it’s easy to let the day get away from you. But if you follow this advice, you’ll end up with a system for making sure every day is the best it can possibly be. 

To support you along the way, try RescueTime Premium for free for 14 days. If you find it valuable, get in touch with our support team to take advantage of our 30% educational discount.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. That is a really great advice. Moreover, I even tried some of them and It worked out with fighting my procrastinations. Cause I am a university student right now and I used to deal with my procrastinations every day and It was so hard. But thanks for these strategies.

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